Empire of Death (Doctor Who)
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Where this book does score highly is in its treatment of the 5th Doctor and companion Nyssa. The Doctor's portrayal is one of the more accurate ones in tune with Peter Davison's tenure as the Time Lord; he is often at the scene of the action, but more often as an observer than an active participant. Nyssa's character receives some much needed attention and depth; as this is the first novel to feature her as a sole companion, she is not overshadowed by the presence of Tegan. The author deals sympathetically with the Trakenite's feelings about the loss of her family, home world and her TARDIS friends, something most screen and book writers have left alone.
There are some plot holes that irritate, and minor characters who do not convince, and these are the only reasons why I don't allow Empire of Death a 5-star rating.
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Meanwhile, the recently deceased Adric appears in the TARDIS as a ghost. When the Doctor and Nyssa follow the ghost's trail, they are led into the race. As the Doctor finally understands what's really going on, it's a race of time to save the future. Or is it the past? That's the problem with time travel, I never can remember... :-)
This is one of the finest 5th Doctor adventures I have read, only being beaten by "Divided Loyalties". It features a great characterization of the Doctor and Nyssa both, and remains accurate to the show's history and feeling. All characters are well written, keeping the pages flowing with emotion and fear.
The only reason that this book gets 4 stars and not 5, is because it has a thundering cliche that I couldn't get past. One of the Queen's Generals goes mad, and uses his power to force all underneath him to help him find the entrance to the afterlife. The Ma Military-Man/Mad Scientist or what-have-you, is simply used far too often in Science Fiction in general, but even in the recent Doctor Who books (That half-human and half-cyborg dude from "Hope" and the crazed Russian General from "Emotional Chemistry" come to mind).
If this cliche doesn't bother you, perhaps your review will give this book the extra star. Even if you don't like the cliche, I still recommend this book.
Well, we don't get the masterpiece but we also don't have the cringe-inducing terror that the previous novels caused. This time out the Doctor in question is the gentle Fifth, traveling solo with Nyssa (in one of those five thousand adventures that everyone crams in during that period when it was just the two of them since the assumption is that Nyssa is long-lived) and after an encounter with recently deceased Adric on the TARDIS, winds up in good ol' Victorian England to investigate. There, a young medium has become really good at his job, managing to get an audience with none other than Queen "We never said we are not amused" Victoria herself. The queen is mourning the loss of her husband Albert and is intrigued by the possibility that she will be able to see him again. Meanwhile it seems that under a dark Scottish lake may be a portal to "The Other Side" where the dead of all the families are waiting to give them hugs and welcome them to the best place ever, which is quite possible since Disney World doesn't exist yet. The Doctor, having experienced actual Best Places Ever, doesn't quite buy it and tries to get to the bottom of it.
It may help that Bishop this time doesn't try to stretch beyond what his abilities can handle, and thus we get a very basic bread and butter plot. The Doctor and Nyssa are curious, something is clearly up, and it's only a matter of time before the "what" of that up becomes apparent. He populates the novel with a variety of characters, none of whom do anything embarrassing, although very few are memorably impressive (when the medium, who is basically a main character, vanishes for what feels like a good chunk of the novel, I really didn't notice). Surprisingly, he does succeed with Queen Victoria, who manages to come across as both person and momentous historical figure. In real life the loss of her husband drove her into a deep period of mourning that kept her out of public view for quite a long time and Bishop does manage to convey that balance between her duties as a monarch and her ardent wishing for her beloved husband back. In fact, Victoria probably has the best characterization of anyone here, and that includes the regulars.
There's a rich vein of philosophical and emotional exploration that could be tapped here. Both Nyssa and the Doctor are in mourning as well, the Doctor for Adric and Nyssa not only for the poor annoying mathematician (it's amusing that even in flashbacks he's a pain in the rear) but for her father and everyone on Traken. It's a connection between them and the Queen that the novel really doesn't mine. In fact, the Doctor makes barely any mention of his grief over Adric, and if any novel was capable of exploring his feelings over it, it would be this. Adric was in some respects the greatest failure of the Fifth Doctor, a slap in the face to his pacifist tendencies and slowness to act. Peter Davison's face at the end of "Earthshock" says it all, the impact of a worst case scenario no one saw coming. Yet we get none of that here. Emotionally the whole novel is fairly flat, with the heat never really rising above "tepid" at any point. The Doctor and Nyssa are so calm and placid that eventually you want to scream for someone to show a bit of fire. It sucks every bit of urgency out of the novel as no one ever seems to be in a hurry to figure out what's going on. The Doctor remains a complete cipher, a young man in a cricket outfit who knows stuff but we never get any sense of what gears are turning underneath. In one of the novel's few discussions about mortality, the Doctor gives a nice analogy about the beliefs about the Maori of New Zealand in regards to an afterlife. But that avenue of discarded too quickly and we never get back to it again.
Having Nyssa keeping a journal at least changes the tone at times but Nyssa was never the most fiery of companions, so switching from flat third person narrative to flat first person narration doesn't quite help matters. Especially since we never get the gut punch we should from a woman who is faced with the possibility of her dead father . . . this could be an extraordinarily emotional experience but instead seems like just another problem to solve. It may be that the book never pretends that the whole "Other Life" scenario is anything other than a feint. Never for a second is it possible to believe that the dead are coming back and if the book doesn't believe in its own premise, how can we expect the characters? It makes the novel feel lazy in that it barely seems to bother with any kind of explanation. We start to get shades of "Apocalypse Now" as one of the generals begins to go out of his mind, but when the real threat appears it's so late in the game that we're not told anything about them except they are Bad Aliens (and apparently pro-life as well). They feel like generic placeholders because the Doctor has to fight something but the resolution is so matter of fact, you wonder what the point of it all was and why we scrambled around for two hundred plus pages. The aliens are just generically angry and we're supposed to accept that it's enough to hang a whole plot on. Right.
Also, I'm not sure whether to give or take away points for the wholesale co-opting of the famous "Ambassadors of Death" "We're coming for youuuu" pose and just replacing it with a deep-sea diving suit. I want to imagine it's some kind of ironic commentary but I imagine it's a combination of a desperate attempt to hit old nostalgia buttons and sheer laziness.
So what we get isn't terrible (no one does anything monumentally stupid and the plot is so simple it's rather difficult to screw up) but shrieks of so many missed opportunities for something deeper and richer that it's a shame. Given the clash of cultures and times and ideas, the chance to have an exciting examination of the characters' views on mortality and the afterlife and how far they're willing to go to see old loved on again seemed like an obvious choice. Instead we get the notion that the Doctor keeps a museum of everyone he's ever met that matters. Which kind of describes how this novel is, all surface and display, as if seeing is merely enough. It never digs in far enough to see how it feels, or if it even can.
It's a pity this book didn't live up to its initial promise, because there were some interesting ideas and insights there.